WELCOME DANCE
Dr Demos Gora

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MEMORIAL

TO PERIYAR

E V RAMASAMI

CHENNAI

INDIA and POVERTY 

THE FIFTH WORLD ATHEIST CONFERENCE 

ATHEIST CENTRE VIJAYAWADA 2005 

Report on my trip to India, including meetings at Chennai and Hyderabad 

DICK CLIFFORD 

It is easy to get to Hyderabad or Chennai from Adelaide. It only takes two hops via Singapore or Kuala Lumpur with a one night stop over at either place. I chose Singapore and Hyderabad because The Atheist Centre had their representative at Hyderabad who met me at the airport, took me to a hotel and later put me on the night train to Vijayawada. They were all very good at shepherding me around right down to ensuring that I got the right berth on the train.

 I was to spend two days at Hyderabad and had opted to go to the hotel nearest to the venue that would be used in the last leg of the trip. It was cheap but unfortunately it was not a very good hotel. The bed was hard, the bathroom plumbing did not work, and the restaurant which looked attractive only supplied curried dishes. I began to realise that to an Indian a bathroom need only consist of a few buckets including a small one with handle for mixing hot and cold water. Hotels did have western style toilets, other places simply had a hole in the floor and I soon learnt to carry some toilet paper with me. 

The following morning I went out to get some money, a toothbrush which I had forgot to pack, some picture cards to send to my relatives. The first thing that struck me was the traffic on the roads. The average Australian would not believe it. There are great numbers of motor bikes, almost as many 3 wheeler taxis, several small cars and a few big busses all rushing along vying for position and using their horn either to warn the vehicle next to him not to encroach on his space or to get the vehicle in front to move on. Some cars even had a bumper sticker "please use horn" The main problem was crossing the road. I soon found that the best way was to sidle up to an Indian who was intending to cross the road and when he moved, I moved! 

Just before Xmas Babu Gogineni had emailed me inviting me to a secularist conference and asked me to give a report on Australia, this I did but it left me insufficient time to write a screed to present to the main conference. However I did have two recent emails, one giving the latest information about an oil shortage to take place in 2007 and the other about the dangers of methane gas if the northern arctic gets too warm. All pretty scary stuff. So I searched for, and eventually found an internet establishment where I madly typed away for about 3 and a bit hours producing a 3 page paper which was printed out. 

During this time I noted many beggars and that the condition of the buildings were very poor and dilapidated. Many shop fronts were ramshackle, some were hovels. In a few places there was a wall on the frontage and I saw men go and piss up against the wall. The same day there was an item in the newspaper exhorting Sanitation Officers to carry out the law. But I am told that this practise is to be found all over India. 

Another item in the newspaper reported the suicide of a 24 year old woman because she was being pressured by her husband over the dowry. 

The trip to Vijayawada was by train at night and our hosts had arranged that I was to travel with Frank Zindler, Editor American Atheist, a tall cavernous man, a great raconteur and every inch an Atheist. He was also very knowledgeable about languages when he addressed the conference he first spoke in Hindi but got little response. Then he spoke in Telugu, the local language and was immediately applauded. 

In Vijayawada we were driven to the Atheist Centre through a very busy city, you turn in to a short lane to the entrance and you find yourself in a quiet oases with some thatched roofs suggesting you have been transported to the country. 

The Atheist Centre is the home of the Goras' and was founded by Gora and Saraswathi Gora in 1940 and moved to its present position in 1947. Gora died in 1975. It is a social change organisation now led by Saraswathi and a dedicated team of people engaged in the promotion of Atheism as a way of Life. Saraswathi is now 93 and there are 5 generations of Goras. 

PROGRAMS OF THE ATHEIST CENTRE 

  From the beginning the centre has covered a wide field of activity. They have given priority to fighting untouchability and caste distinctions, by promoting intercaste and castless marriages and social mixing programmes. 
  They provide counselling to the many who come to the centre with problems of dowry, desertion, destitution, unwed motherhood, sex discrimination, stranglehold of superstitions etc.
  They have led the fight against superstitions with fire walking demonstrations, exposure of many so-called miracles, Godmen are challenged to prove their miracles and the hoaxes of rebirth are exposed. They combat Witchcraft and Sorcery and receive the cooperation of the Indian Medical Association, police and other Government departments. 
  At their hospital they conduct weekly lectures on different body parts and ailments which help to dispel health related superstitions. 
  Education and awareness programs have been organised, they have their own printery and Gora's books on adult literacy, scientific and social outlook are widely read. 
  From the earliest days Peace Marches in strife torn areas have been organised including the foot march from Ghandhi's Ashram and many others. 
  Sex Education and Family Planning is promoted In spite of resistance from traditional society, Dr Samaram of the Atheist Centre has been writing on Sex Science in a Telugu daily newspaper and conducts a question and answer column. He has published over 150 books. He and Dr Maru organise health camps and AIDS awareness programs. 
  Gora Science Centre, started by Gora in 1967, has done much to investigate the claims of the paranormal and Godmen and to put on science exhibitions using quite simple models. There is now a permanent exhibition housed in the centre in the Sir Hermann Bondi Hall.

  In addition the Centre has created three separate organisations housed in the centre which carry on rural development programs: 

Arthik Samata Mandal (Association for Economic Equality) ASM has been working in the sectors of health, habitat, agricultural improvement, livelihood, education, child sponsorship, child rights, disaster relief, rehabilitation, reconstruction and mitigation for the last 27 years. They have been involved in disaster relief since the 1977 Cyclone and tidal wave, the 6 major floods and 2 cyclones that have occurred since and these experiences have helped them when tackling the 2004 Tsunami. They have also helped hundreds of polio victims and cataract victims in remote villages. 

Vasavya Mahila Mandal is a working women's hostel enabling country women to stay and work in Vijayawada, it is a step towards women empowerment. The Short Stay Home is for women with social problems such as battered women, victims of torture etc., who come for counselling and guidance. They are often able to effect reconciliation with their families. VMM also undertakes HIV AIDS programs and Criminal reformation. Vocational skills are taught so they can resume their lives without using criminal methods. Children are taught team dancing on secular themes, humanism and scientific social outlook. 

SAMSKAR is working in more than 100 villages among the criminal tribes known as denotified tribes and has also taken up the program for the eradication of the Jogini system. (A heinous practice thrust on poor untouchable women) 

SETTLING IN 
We had the choice of living in the centre or going to a hotel. I chose the centre which was not air conditioned, the beds were just as hard, but I seemed to be getting used to it, mosquitos were a nuisance but I had brought a small tin of roll on which was effective. The bathroom had a western style toilet but you used the bucket system for washing. Eating took place in the main welcome house and was vegetarian with no curry - a welcome relief from my previous hotel. I was to take pleasure in the happy interplay of the Gora family, while I did not understand the language their manner and the lilt in their voice showed understanding and happiness. We were taken on an inspection tour, the hospital was a new concrete building (about 4 years old). The equipment was at least 30 years old but serviceable according to a fellow delegate, (a nurse from Sweden). There was a long ramp between floors for moving patients. Then we went to a large room where all the old photographs of Gora and family are displayed including some with Ghandi and Nehru and quotes from his speeches on many subjects. All the time we were being introduced to the important people starting with Mrs Saraswathi herself, Dr Vijayam, Mr Lavanam, Dr Samaram and Dr Maru.

 The 5th World Atheist Conference 
Took place at the Siddhartha Auditorium being part of the Siddhartha Arts and Science College some 5 minutes drive from the Atheist Centre. We drive through a guard of honour consisting of two lines of ladies wearing their most colourful saris and line up for registration. We receive an attractive cloth bag which contains the program, a pen, a pin on label (you write your own name in) various other papers and a copy of the Conference Souvenir a book with contributions from most of the participants (including myself). I went into the hall deposited my gear and rushed out again to photograph the guard of honour. 
  The overseas delegates included 5 from Germany, 6 from Norway, 4 from UK, 4 from USA and one each from France, Holland, Iran, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sweden, Switzerland and yours truly from Australia. There were 74 Indian representatives recorded in the program but there were probably many more who attended. 
  The proceedings opened with a Welcome Dance by Dr. Demos Gora, M.B.,B.S. Yes, she is a medical doctor and an exponent of Indian Classical Dancing. 
  The stage was then reset with a long table, Saraswathi struggled on to the stage and many speakers were called to the dais including myself. Saraswathi made a short speech in her language, and one of her granddaughters gave us the whole of the long speech in English. There was a display of pictures from the Gora Mobile Exhibition.
   Levi Fragell, former President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union asked the question in relation to the recent Tsunami "Why do the poorest ones, the old, the small children playing on the beach - why should their God punish the poor and not the rich?" 
  Roy Brown, current President of the IHEU said " The great casualties of the scientific revelations has been the God's. - God is obsessed at what you get up to in your bedrooms. In America 14% are Atheists and they are attacked more than the homosexuals whom the Christians love to hate." 
  Prof. Chandra Sekhara Rao (former Vice Chancellor) spoke on personal homage to Gora and that the religious spirit is not necessary, it is in fact harmful. 

During the break I met Dr K Veeramani, leader of Dravidar Kazhagam ie the Periyar Centre at Chennai where I had been told that I was to attend a followup conference. I was handed a nicely printed invitation and discovered that I was the guest speaker at the Rationalist Forum! Fortunately I was now satisfied that I had sufficient material.

 THE BALLET 
On Friday evening we were treated to "Chatanya Svravanthi" a Dance Drama or Modern Ballet. It is an artistic effort to awaken people to some of the challenges we face in the 21st century. One of the characters was dressed entirely in black with the word "AIDS" written across his/her costume. The cast included some live musicians but the main vocal was recorded with a very good singer with a great operatic voice.
 Dr Demos Gora took the lead and for at least 2 hours delighted us with extremely energetic dancing ably supported by a cast of 10 players all displaying appropriate emotions while dancing. Even though I did not understand a word, the sound, the interplay of the dancers enacting the voice, and the artistic whole, was entrancing. I told every one I met that, put it on in the West End in London, it would be a smash hit!

 On Saturday morning our speakers took up the theme that Human Rights are the moral basis of Atheism, that democracy works with Human Rights and that democracy guarantees the rights of the minority. 
Babu Gogineni (IHEU Executive Director) Brahmanism has to be defeated - (A Brahmin is the upper class of the Hindu caste system) Religion divides people, we should divide ourselves from them. - What will change society- Education -learn from this but think of centuries not years - people do change over a lifetime. 

The conference proceeded with many speakers telling us of their experiences, what they have done and what they intend to do. We saw demonstrations by magicians duplicating the frauds practised by Godmen. There was an interesting talk by Jim Herrick (Literary Editor, New Humanist) concerning Art and Humanism. 

It is not possible to give a clear account of what was said at this conference, it was difficult to understand because the 36 large fans in the ceiling resulted in a high noise level. (Jim Herrick said there had been research showing the higher the noise level the more likely it was for the brain to switch off. He thought the noise levels were considerably higher than venues in Europe.) In addition English as spoken by an Indian can be as difficult to understand as that of a Cornishman by a Londoner, and Indians also have problems with an Indian from a different State. Fortunately many speakers sent round copies of what they intended to say. I shall go over these and issue summaries. 

At this time I interviewed two people on minidisc. Frank Zindler whom I referred to earlier and a lady who had been working in the reception area and turned out to be a headmistress of a school (260 pupils). She spent much of her time educating the mothers realising that this would be passed on to the family. I asked her what was India's greatest problem. She replied "illiteracy". The full importance of this did not sink in until I had seen the contradictions of India, the great University at Chennai, the large girls college there, and heard Roy Brown (President, IHEU) at the Secularist Conference say that there was more illiteracy in India than in Bangladesh. I then realised that illiteracy should be classed as Poverty of the Mind and was as important as physical poverty. 

So the Conference drew to its close on the Sunday afternoon, all speakers were called to the dais and presented with a plaque and stole. At all times our hosts were very strong on ceremony, from their everyday greeting to a presentation was done so you felt honoured. The Conference declaration was issued. Photographs taken. 

While my talks at Vijayawada and Chennai were a warning against industrialists and financiers who were rushing us up against a globalised wall of unsustainability, the main thrust of the conference was the battle against religion, the many Godmen who use magic and deception to extract money from illiterates and the Hindi religion (80%) which treats women so badly even today when some reforms have been attempted.

 The next day Demos Gora showed me her beautiful set of photos showing her in dance poses in a very elaborate dress against a background of a green country.

 CHENNAI 
The following day I went by overnight train to Chennai where I was met and taken to the Cosmopolitan Club (1873) and given a two roomed suit. I asked about the price and was told that I was their honoured guest, it was all paid for. The bed was very comfortable, the furniture was top quality, the floor was dark brown polished marble which looked worth a mint and probably was. The electric fittings were in good condition but were of a design that suggested they were at least 50/80 years old and the fridge had an external motor and pump something we have not seen in Australia for 50 years and many may not know what it is. 

I was then taken on a tour of the Periyar Centre. Actually "Periyar" means "the Great Man. His real name is E.V. Ramasamy and while there are many Periyar's if you just say "Periyar" you refer to E.V. Ramasamy. He lived from 1879 to 1973 and was a great reformer and fighter for the Justice Party and against the caste system. He introduced a new wedding system. He fought against the compulsory imposition of the Hindi language. He fought for women's rights, being very concerned with the sad condition of widows in Hindu society. He was imprisoned on several occasions and in answer to criticism of his words and actions he said that social values and social assault on humanity had gone down to such a level that it was necessary to come down heavily with bitter truth just to awaken the illiterate, superstitious population. He supported Ghandi but had arguments with him. After his death in 1978 Dr K Veeramani continued as secretary and established numerous institutions as a permanent memorial to Periyar. 

I was shown the large and beautifully kept memorial, a large theatre building, a book shop, the printery where they printed the only humanist daily paper (in Tamil) in the world. I went over the Periyar museum 

MY TALK TO THE RATIONALIST FORUM 
Mr Aasaan, my guide gave me the good advice to speak slowly and to tell them some personal items like how I became an atheist. So the same evening Dr K Veeramani presented me to the Rationalist Forum. I was duly garbed with 3 beautiful stoles and I started by telling them that when very young I was sent to Sunday School and eventually became an alter boy. They then discovered that they were short on choir boys. I was literally press ganged into the choir. But at school I was learning science and it soon became apparent to me that religious beliefs were untenable and told my parents that I was no longer going to church and was an agnostic. Why an agnostic? Well my private definition of an agnostic was an atheist who did not want to offend his parents. 

I started my talk with the new evidence that oil supply is likely to be restricted by 2007 as there are insufficient mega wells coming on stream in that year, I continued with the question of methane being released by melting arctic ice if global warming exceeds 10 degrees. Since methane is a very strong greenhouse gas this could result in a temperature spike completely upsetting normal agriculture which might not recover for 100,000 years. I then went on to discuss the nature of poverty. (From my article in the souvenir) Rejecting the usual reasons I said it was due to the way we use money. The most expensive item on our budget is a house. Most need a loan but the cost of the loan may add up to 3,4 or 5 times the value of the house, renting is no better. Businesses also borrow money on which you are paying their interest, and you could be up for higher charges on your credit card. All this represented a great river of money flowing from the poor (those who need a loan) too the rich (those who make loans) This was the real cause of poverty. 
  I looked up at this point and noted one face out there who was nodding his head in emphatic agreement. 
  I continued to say that we needed to reform the economic system to put a throttle on this river of money. One possible way is to adopt the principles of HR 1437. This is a Bill before the American House of Representatives which can be used as a blueprint for any country with only minor modifications. It allows the Reserve Bank to supply interest free money to the States and to native tribes for the purpose of building infrastructure to be paid back over a period of 10 - 30 years. There are a number of clauses designed to prevent inflation and fraud. While it is probable that it will be rejected in the USA, their National debt and adverse trading balance may change their minds. There are numerous advantages in this proposal. I concluded by saying that in my youth my mentor was George Bernard Shaw, who had back in the 1880s walked across London with his friends and noted the poverty at that time, They formed the Fabian Society which became the think tank of the ALP and did the research for the Beveridge report which started the Health Service and made the Welfare State possible. Unfortunately the forces of economic rationalism are taking us back to Laissez Faire but I am very pleased to find that the reforming spirit of GBS is the same as that to be found in Gora and Periyar. Mr Aasaan then made a long speech and told me he had summarised my effort and translated it to Tamil. 

The following day a retired Professor took me on a trip to see his old University and Library and to a much newer Girls College run by his female relative. We also inspected the Chennai beach which had been turned from white to brown by the Tsunami. 

SECULARISM CONFERENCE 
Back to Hyderabad, this time to a much better hotel arranged by the Atheist Centre's representative at a discount. Within 3 hours I was at the conference venue and that morning I made my Australian report. I had been asked by email to give my report a title, I replied OK how about "Australia - The land of the Creeping Right". Later I was told that it was a brilliant title which would be remembered long after the content had been forgotten!. The content included paragraphs slating Howard for benefiting the rich and making life more difficult for the poor with every bill he passed, for benefiting the church by farming out parts of the employment service to the Salvation Army. I referred to two South Australian Problems, one being the Melrose Park School, run by the Church of the Bretheren who get large grants from Howard but they have no computers and their curriculum is suspect. The second problem is about chaplains in church schools some were proselyting the students and new guidelines were being studied. I wound up by reporting on the condition of Humanist Societies and the lack of young members which afflicts many societies in Australia. I also referred to my problem in understanding English as spoken by Indians. (This brought forth all sorts of comment. Many said they had the same problem because it was spoken differently in many States. The President pointed out that next year India would print more books in English than any other country hence by the weight of numbers India was to become the centre for the English language.) 
  However there is one great exception, I referred to Babu Gogineni who speaks excellent English, putting most Englishmen to shame. He put more sense in one sentence than the rest of us can put in a page of script - I could see Babu in the front row looking embarrassed and grinning broadly at the same time. I got an invitation to dinner that night at the Green Hotel, the top hotel in Hyderabad and the food was delicious. Our host was Chandla Latha a novelist who also spoke at the Conference and she asked me for a copy of my effort and I had a spare available. 
  Several musical items were put on between speeches. 
  On the second day there was an interesting speech by Roy Brown (IHEU President) who praised Hyderabad for improvements made, and said he has a problem regarding having respect for religions - we should have respect for individuals but not religion. Why should we respect religion which are based on superstition and the belief that the world commenced a few thousand years ago in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary. 
  America - in the McArthy era, the target was Communists, in reality the targeted were the American Liberals. Today, to be deemed a liberal, is a mark of disapproval, to be a secular humanist is beyond the pale. 
  Jefferson rewrote the bible to eliminate the miracles and leave the parables. Recent exhibitions of Jefferson's work have eliminated Jefferson's free choice writings. 
  The conclusions of the conference will be issued shortly. 

THE LAST DAY 
I was invited to the home of the wife of the Atheist's Centre representative in Hyderabad, a unit in a block of flats on the 2nd floor. It was a plain functional unit which had an unusual room off the main room, possibly was a store room which now contained the computer. She was a dentist and did much free work in the remote villages where poverty is much greater than in the city. 
  That morning in the paper there had been a report of the killing of two Naxalites by the police. Who were the Naxalites? They were rebels who live in the forest, she said, you should not think of them as criminals. (Though some of them are) many were educated people, including doctors and professors and farmers whose businesses had been undercut by low prices forced on them by American competition and banks that provide loans that cant be repaid so had gone bankrupt. The Government has been trying to make peace with them but they have been demanding the right to carry arms. The peace talks are rather like those between Israel and Palestine, On one day, and off again the next. 
  The real problem in India, she said, is overpopulation. The Muslims have 10 children each or more, they marry at the age of 14 or less. This means that the daughter, the mother and the grand mother can be pregnant at the one and the same time. Other religions only have 3 on average. (Even this is large compared with China) 

At the airport I am surprised by an official who puts me through the ticketing system at top speed, fetches me a wheel chair and insists that I be pushed right up to the aircraft door and on arrival at Singapore I get the same treatment up to the stop-over desk which is a long distance and is very welcome - but that is the only time it happened. 

  So back home in Australia I listen to President Bush speaking about freedom and democracy. What use is freedom to an illiterate Muslim woman doomed to have 10 babies? Is it not Bush who's religious right policies prevents knowledge of family planning being spread to the extent that it should? 
  I read the latest information of the coal fired power stations to be built in China and India which will produce more CO2 than Kyoto will save. Does this not follow from Bushes and Howards contempt for Kyoto and their preference to Industry and profits? I read Blair's statements in relation to new global warming estimates which say 11 degrees is possible a figure which could cause the methane in the arctic to burp? 

  The fact is that we have to cool it, literally, the whole earth I mean. We have to live frugally, we must ration the use of oil and coal, we should follow the example of the Goras who live simply, in a semi communal state and we must demand reform of the economic system to make greed unprofitable, a fairer distribution of capitol, to allow local production for local consumption and give more incentive to develop alternative energy. 

  Above all we must educate our politicians, Industrialists and financiers as to the real situation that we face, that the word growth means a rapid advance to destruction, that a larger share of resources are needed by the natural world. 

The religious right, industrialists and financiers are leading the world to destruction so it should not surprise you that I agree with Periyar when he says: 

He who invented the concepts of Soul, Heaven, Hell, Rebirth 
and the other world of our forefathers is a knave. 
One who believes them is a fool. 
One who enjoys the fruits arising out of these concepts 
is the worst scoundrel
.


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